Durham Literacy Center changing homes, lives

lkendall@newsobserver.comJuly 30, 2012 

  • Gang-neutral location One of the main draws of the Durham Literacy center’s new building is that it lies on gang-neutral territory, executive director Reginald Hodges said. Although he emphasized that only a few students are gang members, it can still present a problem. If a gang “owns” an area, other gang members have to show respect for that group, he explained, and that affects their ability to learn. “We had students intentionally misspelling and writing things wrong because the other gang was in the room,” Hodges said. “We thought it was an English issue, and they said, ‘No, if I put ‘BL’ in front of a word I’m showing respect for the Bloods.’ “How are you going to teach a person to read and write if they have this other influence in the room?” The new building also sits on a bus line, making it easier for students to get to class. But even with the perfect environment, the embarrassment of illiteracy still prevents many people from coming forward to learn, Hodges says. “We have men that come to us for literacy training whose wives don’t know that they can’t read,” he said. “It’s a stigma.” Staff writer Lewis Kendall

— The Stylistics. The Osmond Brothers. B.J. Thomas. Tommy James and the Shondells.

When Christopher Williams was growing up he would escape to his room, lock the door and let the harmonies wash over him.

He wanted to be alone, and the music helped him. But the anger and frustration would persist. Something was holding him back.

He couldn’t read.

Williams, now 56, has a lot in common with his younger self. He listens to the same groups, loves to draw and enjoys being alone.

But one thing has changed; the Durham resident is no longer illiterate.

Williams’ parents split up when he was young. He made it through high school, where he was enrolled in the special education program, and received his diploma.

But while many high school graduates frame the slip of paper, Williams ripped his to pieces.

“I looked at [it] and I was so disgusted,” he said. “I said, ‘This was just gave to you, you didn’t earn it.’ ”

Williams doesn’t blame the schools. He says he often hid his illiteracy, and when he couldn’t, teachers, overwhelmed with students, didn’t have the time to help him.

After high school, Williams went to work for the city of Durham, where he has had various sanitation jobs for 24 years.

If anyone asked him to read something, he would brush it off.

“I’m busy,” he would say, “I don’t have time.”

For years Williams kept to himself. The frustration overwhelmed him. He contemplated suicide.

“I never wanted folks to know I couldn’t read because people respected me,” he said. “I always blamed myself; I looked at me as the problem.”

In 2008, Williams visited the city’s human resources department, which advised him to call the Durham Literacy Center. The center set him up with a personal tutor to help him learn how to read.

The center’s mission

For 27 years the Durham Literacy Center has operated out of rented libraries, church basements and community centers, with the goal of educating the city’s estimated 25,000 illiterate adults.

Executive director Reginald Hodges says the illiteracy problem is embedded in the city’s culture.

“I remember the old Durham when you didn’t have to know how to read and write to make a living,” Hodges said. “I think a lot of that was passed down.”

The center offers free classes taught by 120 trained volunteer tutors, instructing students ages 16 to 88.

Sara Jane Bell, a tutor for four years, calls what illiterate students experience “a blindness.”

“Imagine if every sign, every visual were in hieroglyphics and you couldn’t decipher them,” she said. “That’s what it’s like.”

After years of changing locations, the literacy center has found a permanent home.

It announced the acquisition of the building, at 1905 Chapel Hill Road, on June 22, and has begun renovations to improve the space.

The center bought the $510,000 building with money it received from local individuals and businesses as part of a larger capital campaign.

The organization began raising money late last year after board member and Duke historian John Hope Franklin saw the building on his way to work and declared it the perfect site for the group to continue its mission. To date the campaign has raised more than $850,000.

“When we started this, people told us we were crazy,” Hodges said. “But we got there.”

The building will allow the center to increase student enrollment, which stands at 500, by 50 percent. Typically there are 200 to 300 students waiting to get into classes.

Currently the organization works out of eight sites, several of which will remain open.

The new facility, complete with computer labs, a library and about 15 tutor rooms, will open for classes in September.

“Life has passed you by”

After a year with his tutor, Williams was reading at a sixth-grade level. He can now pick up a book or a newspaper and read it with relative ease.

But he remembers what it was like before.

“You feel like you’re not important,” he said. “You feel left out of a lot of things; you feel like life has passed you by. Not picking up a book or knowing how to read, it seems like there’s so much you’ve lost out of life.”

Although he has stopped taking classes, the father of five makes time to practice his reading. He is currently working his way through one of comedian Bill Cosby’s books.

He attributes much of his turnaround to the center. “You can learn a lot from an awesome group of people,” he said.

But Bell says the students deserve all of the credit.

“They are the most courageous people I’ve ever met,” she said. “I learned from (her student) Roxie about human spirit, success and overcoming humiliation. She has taught me more than I have ever taught her, and I am deeply grateful.”

Although Williams considers his situation improved, he also says illiteracy is a constant struggle and that old feelings dog him.

“Sometimes I have a tendency to look back at what should have happened, instead of looking at what I have accomplished,” he said.

But when the negative feelings resurface, he knows how to handle them. He sits alone with his music, just as he would years ago, and lets himself slip peacefully into the soulful world of Russell Thompkins Jr. and The Stylistics.

“That’s what makes the world go ’round, the ups and downs, the carousel ... people make the world go ’round.”

Kendall: 919-932-8760

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